North Macedonia’s capital of Skopje is a historical, busy and often-times confusing place. Inhabited for thousands of years, the city center is home to remnants of the Byzantine and Ottoman eras. Most of the monuments commemorating the region’s glorious Hellenistic past, meanwhile, were only erected in the last decade. In the following Skopje guide, we’ll be covering the top things to do in a single day in the city center.
Skopje is worth at least a several-day stay, however, which would allow you to visit nearby attractions like Vodno and Matka Canyon, not to mention some neighboring towns and villages. Learn more about the top day trips from Skopje below, while you can find general transport and accommodation info at the very end of the article.
Exploring Central Skopje
Central Skopje is home to a wide range of landmarks representing different styles and eras. In addition to a plethora of buildings from the Ottoman era, the city center is now home to Neoclassical buildings that were added quite recently as part of the ‘Skopje 2014’ revitalization project.
All of the locations in the following Skopje guide can easily be reached within a single day on foot.
The center of modern Skopje is Macedonia Square, towered over by a horseback statue of Alexander the Great himself. Born in the 4th century BC, Alexander was the king of Macedon, an ancient kingdom that overlaps with modern-day North Macedonia and the Macedonia region of northern Greece.
Thanks to his tremendous appetite for conquest and adventure, Alexander would spread Macedonian and Hellenic culture as far east as India. But first, he had to defeat the vast and powerful empire of Achaemenid Persia.
Following his death, Hellenic culture would continue to thrive and intermingle with local cultures in places like Egypt, the Middle East and Gandhara (present-day) Afghanistan.
And it would shape the history of those regions for centuries to come. As such, Alexander the Great is undoubtedly one of world history’s most influential figures.
Macedonia Square is surrounded by shops and cafes, and you’ll find several of Skopje’s most significant landmarks in the immediate vicinity.
The Mother Theresa House
Mother Theresa was born in Skopje in 1910. But as she was of Albanian descent, she’s also revered as a national hero in neighboring Albania and Kosovo.
The memorial house, which provides information about her life and work helping the poor in Calcutta, is situated in a rather bizarre modern structure built in 2009. It sits on the site where Mother Theresa was originally baptized, however.
At the time of my visit, they were building a brand new cathedral nearby – also in a unique modern style. It was originally intended to be placed right behind the Alexander the Great statue in Macedonia Square. But due to local opposition, it was ultimately moved a bit further away.
The National Archaeological Musem
The Archaeological Museum of Macedonia is undoubtedly one of Skopje’s most impressive structures – at least from the outside.
Approaching the columned facade, added as part of the ‘Skope 2014’ revitalization project (more below), one gets the sense that they’re about to view one of the world’s premier collections of ancient artifacts.
For added effect, a bridge leads right to the entrance that’s lined by no less than thirty sculptures of various Macedonian historical figures. But as soon as you step inside the building, you’ll quickly realize that things aren’t quite what they seem.
Tickets cost 150 MKD, and after walking through the grandiose entrance, I handed the woman at the desk a 200 note. I was taken aback, however, when she told me she didn’t have any change. She even suggested I visit an exchange office and come back with smaller bills!
I asked if one of the several other staff members who were sitting around nearby might have 50 MKD. One of them reluctantly got up and handed it to the woman, and who slid it over to me without a word.
After walking through what’s arguably the city’s most grandiose facade, I certainly wasn’t expecting to get into a debate over 50 MKD ($1 USD)!
With my ticket in hand, it was finally time to explore the museum. All in all, the collection is not bad. But being only spread out across a few rooms, it’s much smaller than anyone would imagine from the outside.
There’s quite a sizable collection of artifacts from the Neolithic and Chalcolithic eras as well as the early Bronze Age.
Given the massive statues of Alexander the Great and his father Philip II nearby, I was expecting the museum’s main focus to be the Hellenistic era. But those hoping to find treasures from the ancient kingdom of Macedon will have to visit neighboring Greece instead.
You’ll find numerous artifacts on display from the archaeological sites of Heraclea Lyncestis and Stobi, though most of them date from the Roman era. You’ll also find numerous findings from a lost Temple of Tyche outside of Prilep.
Confusingly, one of the museum’s most prized possessions is known as the ‘Alexander Sarcophagus,’ though it didn’t actually belong to him. Furthermore, the one here is just a copy!
The original piece is located in the Istanbul Archaeology Museum, which I got the chance to see the previous year. Discovered at the necropolis of Sidon, Lebanon, the vivid high relief carvings depict Alexander the Great, but its owner remains a mystery.
The location of Alexander’s tomb – likely somewhere in Alexandria, Egypt – is also a great mystery. But given the lack of information at the Archaeological Museum of Macedonia, some visitors might walk away thinking that this is it.
The Stone Bridge
Another of central Skopje’s highlights is the Stone Bridge. While the current structure was built during the reign of Ottoman sultan Murad II in the 15th century, the foundations date back to at least the 6th century. That makes it among the oldest landmarks featured in this Skopje guide.
While you can walk across the bridge, be sure to walk along the waterfront for more excellent views. And you’ll also find yourself in the company of yet more statues added as part of the Skopje 2014 project.
Many visitors to Skopje remark what an unusual city it is. And that’s largely due to the controversial and expensive ‘Skopje 2014’ project. The project’s main aim was to give the capital a facelift following a devastating earthquake of 1963. Furthermore, it was also meant to bolster national pride.
Much of the city’s drab socialist-era modernist architecture was replaced by new constructions with a Neoclassical look. But while the overall concept is certainly commendable, the execution was far from perfect.
Exploring Skopje today, one can’t help but feel like they’re wandering through a Disney-esque theme park at times. Essentially, the government gave Skopje cosmetic surgery, placing kitschy ‘historical’ buildings and monuments where none such existed in the first place.
Statues were also a major part of the Skopje 2014 project, and there are said to be over 100 of them! While those of Alexander the Great, his father Philip II and a few others look impressive, many of the statues around town appear to have been created hastily with cheap materials.
All in all, the project is estimated to have cost up to a billion euro and it was understandably met with fervent opposition at the time. Perhaps the money would’ve been better spent on further archaeological excavations so that more authentic and original statues could be added to the Archaeological Museum’s collection.
National Gallery of Macedonia
What’s most interesting about the country’s premier art gallery is its setting. The building was formerly the Daut Pasha Hammam, established by the Ottomans in 1473. In fact, the structure was the largest bathhouse in the empire outside of Istanbul itself!
Stepping inside, you’ll find a small collection of icons from the Middle Ages and some expressionist paintings from the last couple of centuries. Beyond that, however, the gallery is largely dedicated to contemporary Macedonian art.
Nearby in the Old Bazaar area, you’ll also find yet another hanmam-turned-gallery called the Chifte Hammam. Inconveniently, however, you’ll need to pay for a separate entrance ticket. After already paying a couple hundred MKD for the main gallery, I opted out of the other.
Around The Bazaar Area
Northeast of the recently renovated part of the city center is a much more authentic historical district dating from Ottoman times. The Old Bazaar, or Čaršija, is a sprawling traditional marketplace with a couple of different sections.
A large part of it has been transformed into a space for upmarket souvenir and jewelry shops and high-end restaurants. But walk further and you’ll find an incredibly busy local marketplace where vendors hawk everything from produce to cheap electronics to socks.
As the Ottomans occupied the city for hundreds of years, you’ll also encounter numerous historical landmarks tucked within the bazaar’s narrow backstreets. Here you can find old Ottoman structures like a former caravanserai and old mosques such as the Mosque of Murat Pasha.
Also in the area is the little-known Museum of North Macedonia. Only what seemed to be a small section of the entire museum was accessible at the time of my visit, but entry was at least free.
Though presented through a clear Macedonian nationalist perspective, the museum presents a comprehensive overview of the history of the region during World War II. It also goes into topics such as disputes with Greece over claims to historic Macedonian lands.
Elsewhere in the Ottoman district, you can find the Chifte Hammam. Like the National Gallery mentioned above, it’s a former hammam-turned-art gallery, but you’ll need to buy a separate ticket to enter.
The area is even home to a historic Christian church. Sveti Spas, or Church of the Ascension of Jesus, was partially built underground due to the Ottoman law that churches could not be taller than mosques. Constructed in the 14th century, it’s most recognizable for its tall wooden bell tower.
Stepping inside the main church, home to a large wooden iconostasis, costs 120 MKD. Having already paid to see similar works in neighboring Albania, I decided to save my money.
No visit to central Skopje is complete without a quick stop at the Skopje Fortress. While it dates back to the 6th century AD during the Byzantine era, the hill on which it stands was settled as early as Neolithic times.
While there’s not much to see within the fortress itself, visitors can walk along the walls for clear views of Skopje’s most prominent landmarks – both modern and ancient.
There appears to be a museum displaying findings from the archaeological digs, but it wasn’t open at the time of my visit. In any case, entry to the fortress is free and it’s easy to reach from the other landmarks mentioned in this Skopje guide.
Best Day Trips from Skopje
Frankly speaking, Skopje is far from being the most pleasant city in the Balkans. While the central area covered in the Skopje guide above is interesting, clean and walkable, it only makes up a small portion of the city as a whole.
As soon as you leave the center, you’ll encounter horrendous traffic and ugly architecture that stretches out for miles and miles and all directions.
But as off-putting as the city can be, it’s worth spending at least several days in town, as Skopje makes an excellent base for numerous interesting day trips.
The most popular day trip from Skopje is a visit to Matka Canyon. As you can see the whole canyon area in a few hours, you may also want to later visit the mountain of Vodno on the same day. If you’re up for it, you can even hike from one to the other, though public transport is also an option.
Another easy half-day trip from Skopje is the nearby city of Tetovo, home to the stunning Painted Mosque and a fascinating Dervish tekke.
The most interesting yet largely overlooked day trip from Skopje is a visit to the Kokino Observatory, an ancient astronomical observatory near the town of Kumenovo.
On my last day in the city, I’d planned to visit the charming small town of Kratovo and its nearby ‘Kuklica Stone Dolls‘ rock formations. But the bus station staff I’d asked earlier in the week gave me incorrect times (looking back, he probably thought I was asking about Tetovo!). Buses from Skopje only leave at 7:30 in the morning and 16:35 in the afternoon.
And so, I made an impromptu decision to visit the nearby city of Veles. While not a bad place, it’s largely unremarkable. And in contrast to the other day trips mentioned above which will each receive their own guide, I won’t be dedicating an entire article to Veles. Instead, you can learn about it right here.
If you’ve tried out all the day trips above and still find yourself with an extra day in Skopje, Veles is an easy one-hour bus ride from the capital. While buses seem to leave frequently in the morning, there are fewer in the afternoons. Veles can also be reached by train from Skopje as well as Prilep.
One of the best things to do in Veles is to simply enjoy the views of the town and its clock tower from the Vardar River.
The town’s most famous monument, the Kosturnica Memorial, is situated atop a hill to the north of the city center. Built in 1979, it’s a spomenik, or Yugoslav-era war monument dedicated to fallen soldiers from the area.
While its interior is known for its large mosaics, the monument was completely locked during my visit, even though I was there during the posted opening hours.
Unfortunately, other landmarks around town, such as the National Museum, were also closed throughout the day.
On the opposite end of town, you can walk up to the 19th-century Church of Saint Pantaleon. While the church itself isn’t particularly special, it offers great views of central Veles down below.
All in all, Veles makes for an interesting, but hardly essential, half-day trip from Skopje.
As North Macedonia’s capital and largest city, Skopje can be reached directly from all over the country by both train and bus.
At the time of writing during the coronavirus pandemic, however, not as many buses will be running as one might expect. Buses that previously departed hourly may now only be running a few times a day. Be sure to check at the local bus station wherever it is you’re departing from.
You should also be able to find direct buses from many other cities in the Balkans.
The closest capital to Skopje is Pristina, Kosovo, which is just about 90 minutes away by bus.
The city also has its own international airport, with direct connections to multiple other cities in Europe.
The locations detailed in the Skopje guide above can all be seen on foot within a single day. However, spending several nights and using Skopje as a base for different day trips is ideal.
With that in mind, it’s more important to stay within reasonable walking distance of the bus terminal than it is to the city center.
While Skopje has a public bus system, it’s difficult to figure out and terribly slow due to bad traffic. Therefore, it’s best to walk whenever you can.
I stayed at a place called Universe Rooms and Apartments (formerly Universe Hostel). It’s located about 20 minutes on foot from the bus terminal and about 25 minutes from the Alexander the Great Statue.
I had a comfortable private room with a shared bathroom. The host Goran was incredibly kind and helpful in regards to information around the area, and it was easily one of my better accommodation experiences in the Balkans.